An Australian novelist on being Australian


Tim Winton’s book the boy behind the curtain contains lyrical reflections on the Australian condition.  I think that the notion of ‘Australian values’ is at best empty, and at worst dangerous.  In the present climate, it is commonly invoked to advance a kind of McCarthyism against those of one faith.  The usual suspects of the IPA and the Murdoch press commonly refer to ‘western values’.  We have waited a long time to hear how those values are different from ‘eastern values,’ or why our Chinatown might feel out of sorts, if not out of place.  We tend to forget that the three main faiths in Australia come out of Asia.  That’s why I thought it was very droll of Disraeli to see the Church of England as ‘a sacred corporation for the promotion and maintenance in Europe of certain Asian principles’.

So, I thought I might take out some of the snapshots of us taken by Tim Winton, and see if they might help us to frame a better view of what might pass for Australian states of mind – to use a neutral phrase.


Perhaps, deep down, everyone wants to feel dangerous.  Being rich can do that for you.  So can being very smart.  For the rest who are neither, the gun is a short-cut.  And whatever our circumstances, we’re all steeped in its romance.  We’ve marinated in this cult all our lives; it’s inescapable.  Even in a country where there is no fetishized right to bear arms, gunplay is a staple of entertainment.  Researchers estimate that by the age of eighteen, the average American child is likely to have been exposed to as many as 26,000 gun murders on TV, and there is no reason to assume Australian children’s exposure differs much.  In TV, movies and video games, the underlying showbiz message is that the world is a dangerous place and the only tool that will make a difference in it is a firearm.  The gun ends the discussion, solves the dispute, and, of course, brings the episode to its ‘natural end.’

This is a potent trope against which our children are largely undefended.  All-pervasive as it was in my childhood, it is even more raw and brutish now.  I’m not suggesting entertainment is uniquely responsible for gun violence, but in a country like ours, where gun ownership is uncommon, most young people’s knowledge of firearms is drawn from the festival of screen time killings.  And as the Internet has made plain, humans are suckers for a script.  In recent years to organisations have prospered by broadcasting real executions and assassinations, showing young men and women all across the world that they’re ‘getting things done’, just as the gun-slinging idols of every generation have, from Randolph Scott to Idris Elba, from Dirty Harry to Harry Brown.  Jihadis don’t upload these outrages solely for their own masturbatory gratification; the fact is, these video clips work as propaganda, as recruiting tools, they hit home.  For those who claim to believe that God is Greatest, the AK – 47 ends the discussion.  In their minds, it would seem, even the most sacred words are utterable are insufficient to the needs of the faithful.

A youth who is confused, depressed, or fearful will be tempted to resort to whatever means he has to make himself felt, if not understood, even if his problems, like those of my puberty, are minor and ephemeral, and a truly angry kid is liable to do something extreme and impulsive.  In countries where firearms are commonplace in the home, this often extends to more than self – harm.  Mass shootings have become a fixture of American news.  The carnage in schools and public places is so unremarkable that ritual ‘outpourings of grief’ border on the perfunctory.  Gun murder is so normal in the US it’s banal.  And the gun itself is sacrosanct.  The right to bear it outstrips a citizen’s right to be protected from it, and even a tearful president is impotent in the face of this cult.  In 2016 Barack Obama declared that modern gun restrictions were ‘the price of living in a civilised society’ but it seemed few were listening.  By all accounts, God is Great in America, too, but in truth the nation has always lived as if the gun is greater.  In God they trust, but armed they must proceed.

Most Australians have never owned a firearm.  Few will ever handle or discharge one, and I think this is something to be glad of. In moments of turmoil, the mere presence of a gun alters the atmosphere.  In a domestic dispute, a roadside altercation or a bout of depression, the thing most likely to push the scene out of shape beyond saving is a firearm.  It so often gets the wrong job done. 

Later on, Winton spoke of the leadership that then Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, showed on the issue of gun laws.

I was never a fan of John Howard.  I despised his retrograde social policies and was dismayed by his nostalgia for the unchallenged whiteness and patriarchy of the 1950s, but at a pivotal moment in our history, he literally stuck his neck out and did something vital and brave. By following through on gun reform, he made this country a little safer.  Fronting angry rednecks from the dais that day, he looked pale and stiff, like a man unwell, but that sick look was the face of courage.  That was the spectacle of a man exceeding himself.

That writing is beautiful, but here’s my bias.  I agree with every word of all of it, and I wish I could have put it even half as well.  Two things are involved in this kind of piece – having a clear view, and saying it well.  Winton succeeds completely in both and he brings sense – no, sanity – to areas of public discussion that are mired in nonsense and pure bullshit.

Winton allows us to see some of the nonsense about mass murder and terrorism in context.  We allow our children to soak up fake murders and our Protector indulges in the mass murders of its children by adherence to a fake ideology and a corrupted lobby.  We mash our children’s’ brains with Netflix and then smash their manners with Twitter.  Then we expect them to look solemn when a mass murder takes place in real life.  But what is ‘real’ and what is ‘life’ for these children of cyberspace who take their reality from Facebook before electing another fake politician?

If your child has been one of the victims of a mass murder, does it make any difference to you if the killer was a psychotic misfit who should never have been allowed to go near any kind of gun, or a deranged young man who has concluded, with help from the internet, that his religion warrants his joining in mass murder ending in his own suicide?

Would I say that these views should represent the chimerical values of this land?  Bloody oath, I would.

But there’s the problem.  When the late Jim Kennan was Attorney General, he told me that he was having trouble with our gun lobby.  I said that I thought that was a U S problem.  He said that we had such a lobby here, and that they were the last people I would ever want to see behind a gun.  The opposition to John Howard – about semi-automatic weapons – was such that our Prime Minister wore a Kevlar vest to the dais that Winton referred to.  And now some very unreliable people are being voted into parliaments on gun tickets, and the views of Tim Winton would gravely offend the heartless imbecile who currently resides in the White House. And if our politicians have one unshakeable value, it is that we don’t get fresh with Uncle Sam.

I shall return to Tim Winton’s Oz later.

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